Reconsidering Russia Podcast: An Interview with Fred Weir

The sixth and latest Reconsidering Russia podcast features Fred Weir, the Moscow Correspondent at The Christian Science Monitor. Mr. Weir holds an honors B.A. in European history from the University of Toronto and a teaching degree from the Ontario College of Education.

In this podcast, Mr. Weir and I discuss Russian politics and society, US-Russian relations, the centenary of the Russian Revolution, Nagorno-Karabakh, Ukraine, the American Rust Belt, and his experiences covering Russia as a journalist, living on an Israeli kibbutz, and working as a journeyman ironworker. Enjoy!

Do the Donbas Rebels Want to Establish an Overland Corridor to Crimea?

Map of the Donbas and Crimea (based on a 2015 UN Map of Ukraine)

Map of the Donbas and Crimea (based on a 2015 UN Map of Ukraine)

Numerous observers of the recent events in Ukraine and Mariupol have concluded that the Donbas rebels seek to establish an overland corridor (or “land bridge”) to Crimea on behalf of the Kremlin. The claim, often repeated by pundits in the West, was also echoed by at least one Russian political analyst (Sergey Markov).

However, is this really the case? Do the Donbas rebels really want to establish an overland corridor to Crimea?

The facts and realities of the situation indicate, simply, “no.”

First and foremost, the Donbas region as a whole (including both Kiev-held and rebel-held areas) has no geographic link whatsoever with the Crimean peninsula (see the above map).  In order to establish a land bridge to Crimea, the rebels would need to invade the neighboring oblasti of Zaporozhia and Kherson on the Black Sea, both of which are not considered part of the Donbas.

Such an action would create a serious escalation of the Ukrainian conflict, something that Moscow has continuously stressed it wants to avoid.  There is also the question regarding the rationale for the creation an overland corridor to Crimea when Russia has already invested a lot to build a bridge to the peninsula across the Kerch strait to the Krasnodar Krai.

Even more importantly, since August, the rebels, especially the leader of the Donetsk Republic, Aleksandr Zaharchenko, have made it clear on numerous occasions that they do not have any territorial ambitions outside of the Donbas region.

In fact, in light of the most recent fighting between Kiev and the Donbas rebels, Zaharchenko vowed to push the front to the borders of the Donetsk oblast so that “no shells can fall on Donetsk.”  The recent Mariupol hostilities need to be comprehended in this context.

Mariupol is important to the rebels, not as a potential part of an overland corridor to Crimea, but as part of the Donbas region and part of the Donetsk oblast more specifically.  In fact, it is the second largest city in the Donetsk oblast after Donetsk.  It is also a major port, giving the rebels another “life line” to Russia.  These are the reasons for its importance.

Who are the Donbas Rebels?

Updated on 15 March 2015 with newly revealed information on Crimea.

Lenin in the Donbas (Andrew Butko)

Lenin in the Donbas (Andrew Butko)

As I have written previously, based on the available evidence, I have concluded that most of the Donbas rebels are indeed locals. At the same time, I also believe that they are being encouraged by Russian nationalists from Russia, such as Igor Strelkov.  These nationalists are acting in a private capacity to not only assist but also encourage the rebels.  It is important to note that they are not supported in their endeavors by official Moscow.

However, the hardline faction of the Russian political elite, led by Dmitry Rogozin, wants Putin to intervene in Eastern Ukraine to support the rebels.  They took a similar position on Crimea.  Following ouster of Yanukovych from power in Kiev, a debate ensued in Moscow on the fate of Crimea.  Concerns regarding NATO expansion in Ukraine, the influence of the far-right in the new Kiev government, and the potential effort by the new Kiev government to expel the Russian Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol prompted the debate over the peninsula’s status.  Such fears were not unfounded as many in the Kiev government supported Ukrainian NATO membership, while others sought to cancel Russia’s lease on the base – and still others on the far-right (particularly Oleh Tyahnybok and Svoboda) wanted to abolish Crimea’s autonomy entirely.

The hardliners demanded immediate annexation, arguing that you either “take Crimea today” or “fight there tomorrow.”  At the same time, the more liberal political wing in Moscow (represented by Dmitry Medvedev and others from Putin’s St. Petersburg Sobchak days) was opposed to annexing Crimea outright.  They favored a referendum on the issue, but preferred to delay a final decision on the matter and use Crimea as a “bargaining chip” to ensure the presence of the Sevastopol base and to ensure that Ukraine does not join NATO.  Additionally, they argued, if Russia were to “reunite” with Crimea right away, it would make relations with the West even worse.

Putin ordered an emergency opinion poll during this time that showed that the vast majority of Crimeans wanted to join Russia. Weighing all options, Putin ultimately decided to support the pro-Russian movement in Crimea through a special operation, using the troops from the Black Sea Fleet to gain control of the peninsula as a so-called “self-defense force,” starting on 27 February 2014.

Putin also took the position that he would favor the outcome of the referendum, whatever the final result.  As he said in a new documentary on Crimea that was aired on Russian television on 15 March 2015, his “final goal was to allow the people express their wishes on how they want to live. I decided for myself: what the people want will happen. If they want greater autonomy with some extra rights within Ukraine, so be it. If they decide otherwise, we cannot fail them.”  The referendum was then organized in which the majority of the voters cast their ballots in favor of reunification with Russia. The rest is history.

The hardliners seek to convince Putin to take a similar position in Eastern Ukraine. However, the potential of intervening there is far more dangerous. Primarily, the linguistic demarcation between Russian-speaking Southeastern Ukraine and Surzhyk-speaking Central Ukraine is very blurred. Thus a Russian intervention would only make the situation more dangerous. Given this and other factors, Putin has not did not yielded to the pressure of the hardliners to intervene, even after a referendum was organized in the Donbas. In this regard, the more liberal St. Petersburg faction in the Kremlin, led by Medvedev and others, has been successful in persuading Putin not to intervene.  The most that Putin conceded to the hardliners with regard to Eastern Ukraine was his invoking of historic “Novorossiya.” However, even here, Putin has recently moved away from making such statements and has made attempts to clarify his use of that term to stress that Moscow is not seeking territorial claims on Ukraine.

How to Defuse the Ukraine Crisis

Below are ten basic provisions that I believe may ameliorate not only the Ukraine crisis but also the broader tension that currently exists between Russia and the West. Not all readers will agree entirely with these positions, but hopefully they will become a starting point from which to defuse the situation, proceed forward, and create mutually friendly, not hostile, relations among all parties:

George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta in December 1989 (ITAR-TASS).  The Bush administration informally promised Gorbachev that NATO would not expand "one inch" beyond East Germany.  The promise was never fulfilled.  To defuse the ongoing Ukraine crisis, a formal, written promise not to expand NATO by Washington to Moscow would do much to build mutual trust and confidence between both countries.

George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta in December 1989 (ITAR-TASS). The Bush administration informally promised Gorbachev that NATO would not expand “one inch” beyond East Germany. The promise was never fulfilled. To defuse the Ukraine crisis, a formal, written promise not to expand NATO by Washington to Moscow would do much to build mutual trust and confidence between both countries.

1. The West and Russia should drop any mutual sanctions or restrictions against one another.

2. In order to encourage mutual trust, Moscow and Washington should make an unambiguous, official agreement prohibiting further expansion and encroachment of NATO into the former Soviet republics. Such an agreement must be clearly articulated in a written document, unlike the informal promise not to expand NATO made by US officials to former Soviet President Gorbachev in the 1990s.

3. The United States must promise to cancel the planned missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

4. The United States should recognize Russia’s interests in the former Soviet states, including at least verbal support by Washington for the Moscow-based Eurasian Union, provided that it does not expand beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet states.

5. On Crimea, Washington, Brussels, and Kiev should recognize and accept Russia’s incorporation of the peninsula. This may be a difficult step to take, but the West and the Yatsenyuk government have to acknowledge that the area is demographically and historically Russian, and that it is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Moscow will not reverse this action and any attempts to force Russia to do so would be counterproductive. Therefore, Washington, Brussels, and Kiev should recognize the reality that Crimea is effectively part of Russia.

6. On Ukraine, both Moscow and Washington should express a desire to see Ukraine proper united and indivisible, and to adopt either an oblast-by-oblast federal system or a decentralized unitary system. Ukraine should declare military neutrality and should pursue integration into the Eurasian Customs Union based on Ukraine’s logical and historic economic ties with Russia; notwithstanding the fact that the EU economy currently cannot manage Ukraine. If Brussels were to bring in Ukraine, it would seriously threaten the stability and unity of the EU and would unravel the progress made over the decades of forging a united Europe. Both Russia and the EU should cooperate on helping Ukraine to strengthen its economy and state institutions by challenging the stranglehold of the Ukrainian oligarchs.

7. Given the fact that many Moldovan citizens are already EU citizens via Romanian passports, and that Moldova is becoming increasingly integrated with the EU, Moscow should recognize Moldova’s pro-European orientation.  In turn, Chișinău should relinquish its claims to Transnistria.  Depending on the situation in Ukraine and the will of the people of Transnistria, the latter could then reunite with the former as part of the multiethnic, Russophone Odessa Oblast. The new division would occur along the River Dniester, with all Moldovan-controlled areas on the right bank of the river being ceded to Transnistria, and all Transnistrian-controlled areas on the left bank being ceded to Moldova. The remaining Moldovan state would proceed with EU integration, but would declare military neutrality and disavow any intention of reunification with Romania.  Its relationship with the latter would then become akin to the relationship shared between Germany and Austria.  Such a resolution would alleviate ethnic concerns within Moldova, particularly with the Gagauz.

8. On Georgia, Moscow should promote (with the support of Washington) a federal solution for Georgia as well, making Abkhazia and South Ossetia federal states within a unified Georgian republic. The process for this should follow roughly along the lines of the proposed plan that I posted earlier. Like Ukraine, this new united Georgian federal state should declare military neutrality and, for economic, historical, and geographic reasons, should integrate into the Eurasian Customs Union.

9. On Armenia and Karabakh, the solution to this particular issue should be in the principle of self-determination for the Karabakh Armenians, though this is just an opinion. The aggressive and threatening rhetoric and actions from official Baku have only alienated the Karabakh people. Notably, Baku has also consistently denied basic human rights to its own ethnic Azerbaijani citizens. Thus, such a regime could not be trusted to rule over the people of this region. Aside from this, in order for there to be a realistic and lasting solution to this problem, Azerbaijan must open its borders with Armenia and civil society contacts must be enhanced. Armenians and Azerbaijanis can get along, but not when they do not see or communicate with one another. In their common humanity, they will find that peace and coexistence are possible, but the borders must be open first. Turkey too must open its border with Armenia.

10. Both sides should agree on a gradual convergence of the West and Russia (along with the former Soviet states) in economic, political, and military spheres, thus ensuring that all parties are on the same page with regard to the future of the post-Soviet space and post-Cold War world in general. There are so many more important priorities that need to be solved in the world (Iran, North Korea, Syria, etc.). Russia and the West need to cooperate on these issues and must not be in conflict. Further, such a solution would effectively help to realize the long-term goal of a united and indivisible Europe. It would also go a long way toward building trust with Moscow, thus creating the conditions for Russia to deepen its democratic development endogenously.

How the Russian Hand Was Forced in Crimea

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Presidential Press and Information Office of the Russian Federation)

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Presidential Press and Information Office of the Russian Federation)

On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin accepted Crimea as a subject of the Russian Federation. It was the West, as he specified it in his speech to the Duma, that compelled him to make this decision. Earlier, Putin indicated that he was not interested in bringing Crimea into the Russian fold. However, pro-NATO sentiments among the interim Kiev government in Ukraine proved too much for Moscow. The potential expansion of NATO into Crimea, and the threat to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, became a clear “red line” that Washington had crossed. In Putin’s own words:

… we have already heard declarations from Kiev about Ukraine soon joining NATO. What would this have meant for Crimea and Sevastopol in the future? It would have meant that NATO’s navy would be right there in this city of Russia’s military glory, and this would create not an illusory but a perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia. These are things that could have become reality were it not for the choice the Crimean people made, and I want to say thank you to them for this.

But let me say too that we are not opposed to cooperation with NATO, for this is certainly not the case. For all the internal processes within the organisation, NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory. I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors. Of course, most of them are wonderful guys, but it would be better to have them come and visit us, be our guests, rather than the other way round.

In Russia, the decision was greeted with euphoria; the vast majority of Russians (over 90%) agreed with the Crimean referendum. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev agreed with it too, saying that the people of Crimea “corrected a Soviet mistake” and that the West should celebrate this as a victory of self-determination and should not place any sanctions on Russia. Indeed, for many Russians, Putin’s move in Crimea has cemented his place in history as a truly great Russian leader and patriot, alongside the likes of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.

On a less celebratory note, the events in Crimea will also have the long-term effect of further discrediting liberal voices in Russian politics who promote more partnership and cooperation with the United States. Washington’s efforts toward NATO expansion and democracy promotion have only served to discredit the US in Russia. As Putin pointed out in his speech, Washington has too often violated international law and worked without any consideration for Russian interests in the world:

Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle “If you are not with us, you are against us.” To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organisations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.

This happened in Yugoslavia; we remember 1999 very well. It was hard to believe, even seeing it with my own eyes, that at the end of the 20th century, one of Europe’s capitals, Belgrade, was under missile attack for several weeks, and then came the real intervention. Was there a UN Security Council resolution on this matter, allowing for these actions? Nothing of the sort. And then, they hit Afghanistan, Iraq, and frankly violated the UN Security Council resolution on Libya, when instead of imposing the so-called no-fly zone over it they started bombing it too.

There was a whole series of controlled “colour” revolutions. Clearly, the people in those nations, where these events took place, were sick of tyranny and poverty, of their lack of prospects; but these feelings were taken advantage of cynically. Standards were imposed on these nations that did not in any way correspond to their way of life, traditions, or these peoples’ cultures. As a result, instead of democracy and freedom, there was chaos, outbreaks in violence and a series of upheavals. The Arab Spring turned into the Arab Winter.

The question now is: what next? What will happen in the post-Crimea crisis era?

In an analysis that I wrote last week, I highlighted five reasons why absorbing Crimea would be detrimental to Russia. Of those five, the first three are arguably not major points and are effectively moot. Ukraine will not seek nuclear weapons, the markets did not react badly to Putin’s move, and the impact of sanctions has been (and will continue to be) marginal. On the latter point, the West knows it can only do so much. If they would implement full-scale sanctions, it would hurt them (especially Europe) as much or more than Russia. Moscow has very good relations with Beijing and has already been looking eastward anyway (today it has indicated as much). If full economic sanctions were put in place, it will be the EU, not Russia, that will suffer. Heavy sanctions would potentially have the effect of compounding the already-unstable situation in the Eurozone. Further, if the EU remains committed to the Kiev government in Ukraine, they will be obliged to give money to them too.

That said, my last two points still remain concerns. I mentioned the domestic response in Ukraine. My impression has been that, out of a sense of national feeling, many Ukrainians throughout the country would feel hurt by Crimea’s accession to Russia. This is still arguably a concern for Moscow, which ultimately still seeks to bring Ukraine into its Eurasian Customs Union at the end of the day. In his speech to the Duma, Putin sought to mitigate the potential fallout from his move by emphasizing that it was forced by geopolitical circumstances and that it had nothing to do with the Ukrainian people:

I also want to address the people of Ukraine. I sincerely want you to understand us: we do not want to harm you in any way, or to hurt your national feelings. We have always respected the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state, incidentally, unlike those who sacrificed Ukraine’s unity for their political ambitions. They flaunt slogans about Ukraine’s greatness, but they are the ones who did everything to divide the nation. Today’s civil standoff is entirely on their conscience. I want you to hear me, my dear friends. Do not believe those who want you to fear Russia, shouting that other regions will follow Crimea. We do not want to divide Ukraine; we do not need that. As for Crimea, it was and remains a Russian, Ukrainian, and Crimean-Tatar land.

I repeat, just as it has been for centuries, it will be a home to all the peoples living there. What it will never be and do is follow in Bandera’s footsteps!

Crimea is our common historical legacy and a very important factor in regional stability. And this strategic territory should be part of a strong and stable sovereignty, which today can only be Russian. Otherwise, dear friends (I am addressing both Ukraine and Russia), you and we – the Russians and the Ukrainians – could lose Crimea completely, and that could happen in the near historical perspective. Please think about it.

Another serious concern that I discussed was the possible impact that Crimea’s accession to Russia would have on further NATO expansion, and that it may give credibility to those Cold War lobbyists and Russia-bashers in the West who want to bring NATO to Russia’s doorstep. Fortunately for now, it seems as though the West has relented on bringing Ukraine into NATO. Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister, Arseniy “Yats” Yatsenyuk now seems to be emphasizing that Kiev does not seek NATO membership and that it supports a possible federalization of Ukraine (ideally on an oblast-by-oblast level), two things that Moscow wants to see.

Still, influential far-right forces in Kiev such as Svoboda and Right Sector may force Yatsenyuk to reconsider these positions. Right Sector especially seems intent on provoking an open conflict with Russia, something that the West, Ukraine, and Russia do not want or need. Already yesterday, Ukraine’s national security chief, Andrey Parubiy (the co-founder of Svoboda and the former leader of the paramilitary far-right Patriots of Ukraine) has issued a statement declaring Ukraine’s intention to leave the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), to have Russians apply for entry visas, and to declare Crimea a “demilitarized zone.”

Yet, efforts toward NATO expansion seem to continue unabated in the Caucasus. Here Washington has shown a clear interest in granting Georgia an MAP (Membership Action Plan) by September this year. The Russian daily Kommersant said as much last week, though for those closely watching developments in Georgia, this was nothing new, especially after Irakli Garibashvili’s trip to Washington last month. Significantly, yesterday NATO announced that it will be sending a delegation to Tbilisi next week. Meanwhile, French President François Hollande, a friend of Washington, has also announced a future visit to Georgia in May.

Having Georgia as a NATO member would be a major strategic victory for Washington over Moscow and would pave the way for NATO military bases within close range of Sochi, Grozny, Vladikavkaz, and Makhachkala. Moscow will never accept this and, as I have previously written, Moscow will work to strike some sort of a deal with Tbilisi before autumn. Already this week Moscow made two strategic moves: they reopened the Georgian Military Road fully for the first time since 2006, and Grigory Karasin, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister and representative for Russo-Georgian relations, held discussions on the Abkhaz and South Ossetian borders with Georgia with UN representative Antti Turunen, OSCE Special Representative for the South Caucasus Angelo Gnaedinger and Permanent Representative of the European Union, to the OSCE Thierry Bechet.

Karasin is due to meet with his Georgian counterpart Zurab Abashidze next week, a very significant meeting that may pave the way for a direct meeting between Putin and Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and/or Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili. The Karasin-Abashidze meeting has already been delayed twice, and it remains to be seen how this situation will finally develop.

Addendum (21 March 2014): Dr. Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton University, has informed me that “calls to bring Ukraine into NATO have not diminished among NATO reps and advocates in Europe.” I agree and I must emphasize that I do not think Ukraine has left the NATO agenda. However, I do think that Washington has advised Yatsenyuk to “cool it” hence why he is now saying that he does not want to Ukraine to join NATO. Yet, this is only for the time being and I still suspect that the ultimate objective is to bring Ukraine into the alliance anyway (though Moscow will never allow this).

This is why I wrote “Fortunately for now, it seems as though the West has relented on bringing Ukraine into NATO.” Instead, for the present time, Georgia appears to be the focus for more immediate NATO expansion.

Again, though, I must emphasize that I certainly do not think that Ukraine has totally vanished from the view of NATO expansionists. In fact, I am still concerned that, in the aftermath of the Crimean crisis, NATO expansion is now being viewed as a “wise move” among many circles. NATO expansionists, Russia-bashers, and Cold War hawks will be seen as correct in their predictions that “the Russian bear was always a threat” and that “we need NATO to counter Russia.” Their foolishness, irresponsibility and arrogance is now being viewed as “wisdom” and “foresight.” It seems to somehow reaffirm and vindicate the notion that “poking and antagonizing the bear” was a “well-informed move” and that it enhances the security of the United States and the West. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A Brief Note on Citizenship in Ukraine

Ukrainian Passport (RIA Novosti/Sergei Venyavsky)

Ukrainian Passport (RIA Novosti/Sergei Venyavsky)

In light of the recent Ukraine crisis, much has been made about the issue of Russian citizens in Ukraine, especially as Russia has stated that it may employ the “right to defend” its citizens.

This made me consider: are the people of Ukraine able to hold the citizenship of both Ukraine and Russia, including both passports?

The short answer is technically no.

According to the present Constitution of Ukraine (Title I, Article 4) and the Law on Citizenship of Ukraine, it is illegal to hold dual citizenship in Ukraine. However, there are still many in Ukraine who hold dual citizenship anyway. Understandably (and perhaps not surprisingly), a good number of Russians living in Crimea held dual-citizenship up until the recent referendum (it is unclear how a future status of Crimea outside of Ukraine will affect the citizenship status of these people).

However, there are also significant numbers of people in Ukraine proper who hold dual citizenship as well.  According to a 2008 New York Times report:

Gazeta.24 [a Ukrainian news service] reports that in one oblast [likely Chernivtsi], many Ukrainians have Romanian passports; in another Polish, and in many of the eastern oblasts, Russian passports.

According to the article, about 70% of the residents in Chernivtsi (North Bukovina) hold dual citizenship with Romania. It is also probable that many Hungarians living in the southern portion of Zakarpattia Oblast hold dual citizenship with Hungary. In fact, Budapest has recently opened up the door to granting citizenship to their co-ethnics abroad, including in Ukraine. The majority of applicants are ethnic Hungarians, though it is possible that some Carpatho-Ukrainians native to Zakarpattia have taken advantage of this as well.

More significantly, it is worth noting that the article states that dual citizenship with Russia also extends to the “many of the eastern oblasts.” This likely includes the southern oblasts too and probably even significant portions of some central oblasts (especially the Sumy, Chernihiv, and Kirovohrad Oblasts). Overall, it can be deduced that the vast majority of those in Ukraine with dual citizenship share it with Russia more so than any other country.

5 Reasons Why Absorbing Crimea Would Be Detrimental to Russia

Pro-Russian Demonstrator in Sevastopol (ITAR-TASS/Mikhail Pochuev)

Pro-Russian Demonstrator in Sevastopol (ITAR-TASS/Mikhail Pochuev)

As I expressed in an earlier post, I do not think that the Kremlin is interested in absorbing Crimea.  However, that being said, I would like to point out five reasons why absorbing Crimea would be detrimental to Moscow:

1. It would undermine the terms of the 1997 Russia-Ukraine Friendship Agreement.  In this treaty, Russia recognized the territorial integrity of Ukraine.  In return, it received substantial benefits, including Ukraine giving up its Soviet-era arsenal of nuclear weapons for destruction.  If Russia reneged on this treaty by absorbing Crimea, then it could leave the door open for Ukraine to seek nuclear arms.  Nobody wants nuclear proliferation and it certainly would not be in Russia’s interest.

2. Financially speaking, annexing Crimea comes with a huge price tag.  Putin has already seen the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis on Russia.  It brought thousands of middle class Russians out into in the streets of Moscow and seriously hurt Putin’s approval rating.  Annexing Crimea would bring about a substantial financial reaction that would do more harm to Russia than good.

3. Russia would be isolated from the West.  Annexing Crimea would seriously damage Western-Russian relations which are especially crucial to both sides.  One could argue emotionally that relations with the West are already tense, so why would Russia care?  Indeed, Russia would care because it has strong economic connections to the West, especially the EU.  Likewise, the West (and the EU in particular) has strong economic ties with Russia.  To severe these ties would create serious problems for both Russia and the West that neither side can really afford.

4. It would seriously damage Russia’s credibility in Ukraine.  Opinions about Russia vary in Ukraine.  In Western Ukraine, especially Galicia, there is a strongly anti-Russian sentiment.  However, the attitude becomes more positive in Central Ukraine and especially in the Russophone South and East Ukraine.  Arguably, it is also positive in the distinct westernmost oblast of Zakarpattia where pro-Russian sentiment can be found among many of the Carpatho-Ukrainians.  As I wrote earlier, Putin’s primary aim is not to annex Crimea or to annex Ukraine in part or in whole.  Rather, he wants to see Ukraine in its entirety join as an equal partner in his Eurasian economic Customs Union.  Such a move would be impossible without domestic support and if Crimea is absorbed by Russia it would alienate broad segments of the Ukrainian public, from Uzhgorod to Luhansk, who regard Crimea as “their turf” even if it is an ethnically Russian-dominated region.  Further, by annexing Crimea, Russia would also lose a significant point of geopolitical leverage over Kiev which, if not keeping the country within its orbit, would at least ensure that it does not join the NATO military alliance.

5. It would give license for further NATO expansion, right up to Russia’s frontiers.  By absorbing Crimea, Russia would be giving a clear justification for the expansion of the NATO military alliance deep into post-Soviet territory.  Cold War lobbyists and anti-Russian hawks in the West would feel vindicated and justified in their efforts, dating back to the 1990s, to bring NATO right on Moscow’s doorstep.  These NATO expansionists would play on popular Ukrainian disillusion with Russia in the aftermath of a potential Crimean absorption and would work to bring Kiev into the alliance.  Suddenly, Russia may find itself faced with NATO military bases in Sumy, a mere 98 miles away from Kursk and 404 miles from Moscow!  Further, NATO expansionists would also speed up a potential Georgian membership in NATO in the south (something that is already being discussed).  As it stands now, Moscow still has some cards to play with Tbilisi, as I have discussed in a previous analysis.  However, an absorption of Crimea would potentially threaten any advancements in Russo-Georgian relations and it could also plant Tbilisi firmly in the Western camp, making potential Georgian membership in NATO a real possibility.  This would mean that NATO bases could potentially be on the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus range with missiles aimed at Chechnya, Daghestan, and Sochi.  This would also give the West a perpetual outlet to Eurasia as Georgia now serves as a corridor to Western access to resource-rich post-Soviet Central Asia and the Caspian basin.  If Russia annexed Crimea and the West reacted by planting Georgia firmly in its camp, then Moscow’s influence in Central Asia would also be undermined.

Given these five reasons alone, I must state again that I think Moscow is not interested in annexing Crimea and instead seeks to use it as a bargaining chip with the West in the ongoing Ukraine crisis.